Crossing the cross

May 14, 2019
Alfred E Baldacchino
Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

Photo: Chris Sant Fournier   

The Gozo permanent link discussion has now been politically sealed by the House of Representatives, though not the relevant scientific studies. From the horse’s mouth we now know that it is up to the official agencies to decide how to go crossing this cross with the least possible damages: presumably damages with regard to social, ecological and financial impacts.

One can never vouch for what is said and written, much less for what is not said and not written.

Now this cross is on the lap of the hand-picked academics to decide (or blindly endorse) and shoulder responsibility. One hopes that work will not start, and when problems are encountered, a study is initiated when there is no reversing the damage done, and the necessary permits have been issued. We have seen this a number of times, lately with the widening of country paths by the Ministry of Infrastructure.

The present fleet of Gozo ferries was adequate when they were launched because the demand was adequately met then. But today, the demand has increased while the ferry service has not.

“Surely a fourth ferry can extend the 12-year expiration date… but delaying the problem is not good enough” a young engineer wrote (May 2). Seems waiting for 12 to 15 years for the tunnel to be completed is better than waiting for the fourth ferry which can be in service before one can say Jack Robinson. This student engineer concluded that the fourth ferry is not “economically possible”.

Drivers from Mġarr still have to drive through bottlenecks and traffic congestions from Xemxija, to Sliema, Mater Dei, University, airport, and Valletta: dispersing emissions through towns and villages to the detriment of society and the environment, if these are of any relevance today.

It has also been implied and said that a fast ferry service should be for passengers only. Why? Is there a monopoly which needs protection?  Is this in the interest of commuters or traffic management?

“Congestion is not removed by restricting it. What better ways are there to eliminate traffic congestion other than to facilitate its mobility?” and do away with monopolies. “The idea of a permanent link is not to cut down on the 25-minute ferry trip, but to remove the queues. The engineer caters for the target user first and foremost.” (May 2).

Only? Those who used the ferry service from Mġarr to San Maison know what I mean, before the area was taken for a yacht marina.

Political mongering warns that if northern winds hit the island a fast ferry cannot operate at all. How many times did the fast ferry service from Malta to Sicily (more than 27-kilometre distance) not operated because of inclement weather? Besides, even aeroplanes are occasionally grounded either because of inclement weather, terrorism threats, and volcano emissions! And what about accidents half way through the tunnel?

Saying that the fast ferry service will create a parking issue in Gozo, is trying to convince that a circle is square

Political tears maintain that there is no room in Mġarr for the berthing of fast ferries, not even for a fourth ferry because of the yacht marina. What is more important for commuters: a quay for fast ferries or a yacht marina for the selected few?  One cannot have the cake and eat it too.

Saying that the fast ferry service will create a parking issue in Gozo, is trying to convince that a circle is square. Will there be a selective quota for the number of cars entering the tunnel so that “they will not create a parking problem”?

The political mentality dictates that fast ferry services pollute more than all the cars. Why is this of concern only to ferry services to Gozo and not to the number of cruise liners, which all work on heavy fuel oil even when they are berthed in Grand Harbour?

Young University students are all computer literate. I hope none of these have been imprinted by a ministerial political comment that “environmentalists are not those who stay on the computer writing about everything that passes over the country”!

Students should be proactive and become familiar with modern technology, and not just look at an old ferry fleet to the sound of political idiosyncrasies as if nothing is related to the environment. Student engineers should be at the top of the list on such modern approach as other academic students are doing.

Surfing the internet, getting one’s feet wet, can enlighten one on the modern way of solar-powered ferry services. Sitting near and hearing politicians can lead one to a tunnel vision. There are solar powered ferries working in Scandinavia, where the sun does not shine as strong and as long as it does in Malta and Gozo.

“Engineers are a separate species from the rest of the broader Homo sapiens. Engineers act, socialise and think like engineers; they think laterally. Also, engineering is non-democratic” (May 2) does not reflect well at all on the profession, unless of course this comment is relevant only to those engineers with such a vision, who are building highways in country paths guided by a ministerial mentality of “ħaxix ħażin”.

There are many professional engineers who incorporate the findings of other professions, like economists, ecologists, physicists, chemists, psychologists, geologists, sociologists, planners, legal and medical professions, and also public consultations.

Unfortunately, hand-picked politically faithful academics, some engineers not excluded, fear to tread or consult other professional studies, even if it is just an exercise to “…to remove the queues”, and might I add “ħaxix ħażin”.

Political comments do imprint some hand-picked academics, mercenaries, and the square circled mentality, to whom such political comments are directed.

An appropriate title for this parody would be: “Of guinea pigs, parrots and carrots.”

An appropriate title for this parody would be: “Of guinea pigs, parrots and carrots.”

“Regardless of which career you have, you are going to think like an engineer.” (May 2). A dangerous statement, which can only put engineers in a very bad light, and isolate and lead one into tunnel vision, professionally, physically and morally.  And to say the least, it is not expected from a budding university student, unless of course this is the axiom on which students are taught.

Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

Related articles:

To Gozo with love

Efficient link to Gozo

Wirt Għawdex tunnel debate

Tunnelling the cross

 

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To Gozo with love

January 8, 2019

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The proposed Gozo tunnel has resurfaced once again. No surprise. The MEP elections are round the corner. It is normal that white elephants are driven in the political arena during such times.

Their main aim is to try to get on board the blindfolded followers who can be convinced that a circle is square, especially if this comes from the political leaders, no matter from which side.

This time a new step in this regard has been made. An international call for tenders for the construction of the 10 km underwater tunnel, plus additional inland excavation – approximately an additional 5 km – was announced.

The information was revealed by the Minister for Transport, who regrettably, is already associated with the destruction of any tree which dares stand in the way of spending EU millions to widen roads – the latest to bite the dust are national trees at Buqana.

Suggested socially and environmentally friendly alternative connections between the two islands.

Does the public have a right to know what were the findings of the social, environmental and financial impacts of this tunnel? After all, our country belongs to all of us and not just to politicians and entrepreneurs.

Has consideration been given to the negative impacts of such works on the only remaining unadulterated water catchment area at l-Imbordin?  How will this affect the water table? And how will this affect the livelihood of  those involved in agriculture in the area?

What about the Gozitan farmers on the other side of the tunnel exit? Is this of importance? Who will benefit most from the tunnel, the people or the capitalists? Have such studies been undertaken despite the official tender calls? Has the general public a right to know of these negative impacts or are these confidential too? Would any professional firm tender for such works without such important scientific studies?

How much deeper under the 35 m of sea-depth will the tunnel be excavated? What kind of geological strata grace such depths? What is the position of the ERA?

Who will be giving the assurance and take responsibility for any loss of human life and limb in meddling with such dangerous large and deep sea bottom faults the area is full of, as has been pointed out by geologist Peter Gatt?

Will the responsible minister and the Planning Authority, which incidentally is in his portfolio, be shouldering all responsibility for loss of human life and ecological and social destruction and disasters, both on the site in question and also, directly or indirectly, in the affected areas? Somebody has to.

The answer to these and other questions raised by sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino ‘What purpose should tunnel serve?’ (January 4) have never been addressed, much more answered.

In the background of this political circus, one can hear the artificial, shameless pleadings that this is all in the interest of the general public, especially Gozitans, who deserve to have better crossing facilities between the two islands. No doubt about it.

Everybody agrees that Gozitans and Maltese deserve better crossing facilities. But not with such destructive decisions bereft of any technical and scientific studies, solely based on local arbitrary political acumen and agendas.

There is an ever-increasing momentum among the public, not least Gozitans, that the best environmental, social and financially friendly approach is the fast ferry service between the two islands. These can run not just from Mġarr to Ċirkewwa, but also to St Paul’s Bay or Qawra, to Sliema and also to Valletta.

And if found that there is the appropriate economically feasible demand, also to the Birżebbuġa and Marsaxlokk.

This would help commuters from getting caught in traffic jams along the way in St Paul’s Bay, Mosta, Birkirkara, Msida, Ħamrun, Floriana or everywhere along their journey across the island, something the tunnel can never achieve. The sea routes are already available at no cost at all. And these do not need any widening.

Who will benefit most from the tunnel, the people or the capitalists?

If the Ministry of Transport is open to suggestions, unless they believe that the people out there can all be convinced that a circle is square, they can plan a holistically better managed public transport system on both islands, in connection with the stops of these fast ferries service. The present service between the two islands should also form part of this national transport management plan.

Such holistic public transport management can include, among others, a shuttle service from the Valletta ferry stop to the Valletta bus terminus to cut down on private transport and help commuters reach their destination easier.

Another shuttle service can take commuters to the Blata l-Bajda park-and-ride to reach a parked car which, if one wishes, can be left there. Such facilities can also be available at every fast-ferry stop.

This would be far less expensive and more socially and environmentally friendly than the proposed tunnel, in all aspects. It would also help commuters to cut down on expenses, both in the consumption of petrol, and also in the wear and tear of their cars. It would also help to further reduce pollution from the urban and rural environment, with all its negative impacts on the people’s physical and psychological health.

Furthermore this would also help to lessen the stress in crossing from one island to the other, especially through the 15 km+ tunnel, where all the psychological impact studies seem to have been completely ignored. Unless of course these negative social impacts are also officially regarded as further contributing to the economy.

It would also be interesting to know the toll commuters will have to pay to use the tunnel. It seems that this is not in the public interest either, possibly because it might scare some of the ‘faithful’ who may have concluded that driving through the tunnel would be free, like driving through any other road.

From past experience, I am convinced that the minister responsible for transport has a positive environmental awareness and would positively study any alternative suggestions. However, I have my doubts how much power he has to decide himself because of directions from upstairs.

From the way the social and environmental fabric of these islands is being officially exploited and destroyed, without any scientific studies or regard for their negative impacts, it is very difficult not to conclude that their destruction is part of an official political agenda supported by the square-circled mentality, and endorsed by some academics paid to decide politically and not to think professionally.

The Minister for Transport, nonetheless, is both personally and collectively responsible for the future sanity and well-being of the people of these islands and their environment with regards to the tunnel and transport management.

The crossing to Gozo and back can be made easier for the benefit of the people of these islands, with love and not with co-ordinated politically motivated destruction.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Alfred Baldacchino is a former assistant director of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environment directorate.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

other related articles:

Tunnelling the cross

Efficient link to Gozo

 

 


Tunnelling the cross

May 24, 2016

times of malta

Tuesday, 24th May, 2016

Tunnelling the cross

Alfred E. Baldacchino

The proposed tunnel crossing under the 10km Gozo Channel seems to have surfaced again. Those in favour of this tunnel are putting forward every thinkable reason to justify such a tunnel. Such justifications include the long waiting queues on both sides of the channel, the Gozo aging population, the lack of job oppportuity in Gozo, and also that residents do not want to rely on touristic income to live in Gozo.

2016.05.24 - tunnelling the cross

Photo: viewingmalta.com from The Times

One Gozitan businessman also said that the tunnel would be just another road as the one leading from Marsascala to Valletta. Furthermore, it was also said that the present ferries will be obsolete within 15 years time.

A feasibility study concluded in favour of the tunnel. Externalites, that is the hidden costs that society and the environmenet will have to pay, were not even mentioned, despite the fact that it was concluded that profits in millions would be achieved. Geological studies have not even been initiated. It seems that these are not important as long as it has been concluded that there would be a financial profit.

The geologist Dr Peter Gatt, has pointed out that the area is full of large and deep faults. He also added that it is not only difficult to tunnel through these unstudied faults, but this can also be dangerous to human life.

The maximum depth of water in the channel is estimated to be 30 metres. Excavation depth in the rock bottom, without the availability of geological studies, is estimated to be 70 metres, that is 100 metres below sea level. The openings of this undeground tunnel can lead to the Nadur lowlands on Gozo and Għadira on the mainland.

A number of questions not only have not been answered, but have not even been asked, such as:

How will the tunnel affect both islands from a social and environmental point of view?

Have studies, if any, shown the impact of excavations at the two ends of the tunnel, on the hydrology and agriculture of the areas?

How will the estimated meagre one to two million cubic metres of excavated material be disposed of, and what will be its social and ecological impacts?

How will the tunnel contribute to curb the Gozitan ageing population? Will it instead contribute to further increase it?

Have any studies been done to see if the tunnel will further attract Gozitan youths to spend the weekend on the mainland for entertaining purposes and thus contributing to further add to the exodus from Gozo?

How will the tunnel affect internal tourism? I remember that in the recent past, when there was the ferry service available after the operettas held in Gozo, the commercial entities complained because this affected the bed nights in Gozo because theater visitors could easily return home after the performance. The tunnel would make this possible 356 days a year.

How would the tunnel impact the number of bed nights taken by foreign tourists in Gozo?

A fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view

Initial construction costs of the tunnel are estimated at €300 million, which can easily double, depending on the geological studies. What would be the additional cost with respect to maintenance, and other requisites, for the safety of commuters: for example extraction and injection of fresh air through the tunnel? And how would these increase the toll that commuters will have to pay to cross through the tunnel?

These financial, social and environmental expenses, with the added externalities, are needed for crossing just a 10km stretch of water, not taking into consideration other construction problems. One has also to keep in mind any arising problems during its running, such as traffic accidents or other unforeseen circumstances.

The traffic problems on both sides of the tunnel will not only remain the same as they are today, but there is the probability that these will be further accentuated. Unless of course additional millions are pumped in with further social and environmental hidden costs.

Without doubt, the present facilities to cross the channel are anything but customer friendly. BUT, the tunnel is not the sustainable solution.

The present ferry service contributes to a substantial part of the problem.

It has no competition at all to render it more friendly and adjusted to commuters’ requests and demands. It is a monopolistic service.

Such is the monopolistic management that if there is somebody who believes that he is more important than all the commuters waiting at both quays, he can call back the ferry which has just departed to accommodate him!

The waiting commuters can wait a little longer, be they workers, students, tourists or just common citizens. And the expenses incurred to build such a sustainable tunnel are not the way to control such a monopolistic service.

The ferries in use today were launched in the early 2000. During that time the demand was not as heavy as it is today. Following intensive, successful advertisements to visit Gozo, the demand increased by leaps and bounds, reaching the million mark today. But the number of ferries remained as it was originally, resulting in occasional delays and long queues. If the service were run on competitive lines, without any doubt the problem would not be so acute.

It is quite a relief to hear that a fast ferry service is an alternative to the tunnel. This fast service, besides shortening the time of crossing, can also take commuters, car and all, from Mġarr not only to Ċirkewwa, but also to Valletta, Sliema and any other planned destination on the mainland. This can be enhanced by the availablility of a shuttle bus service from the quay to various bus terminuses.

Such a fast ferry service would be the best sustainable solution from a social, environmental and even economic point of view. Not only so, but it can be faster for commuters, it will avoid time in traffic bottlenecks, it will ease the stress of commuters, it will contribute to the decrease of vehicular emissions, it can also be cheaper and daily commuters can leave their cars on the quay close to home. The tunnel does not address these benefits.

Obviously such a fast ferry service cannot be afforded monopolistic protection, or the problems will still persist.

Speakers, both Gozitans, for the two main parties are leading the front in favour of the tunnel. Only Alternattiva Demokratika is against. One of the former said that all Gozitans are in favour of the tunnel: the vociferous ones that is, but I do not believe that the silent majority are.

The other politician, from the other side of the fence, said that this is a Gozitan project which will benefit Gozitans, and that both parties will include it in their electoral manifesto. Does this mean that those who are against such a tunnel should not vote for the parties who are in favour? A Gozitan friend of mine who is against the tunnel, after hearing such comments on the air, told me that both parties have lost his vote.

The present tunnel vision is more like walking blindfolded searching for a presumed lost black cat in a dark tunnel, to the background music of counting machines.

aebaldacchino@gmail.com

Further reading:

https://alfredbaldacchino.wordpress.com/2014/08/01/efficient-link-to-gozo/


Efficient link to Gozo

August 1, 2014

times of malta

Efficient link to Gozo

 Alfred E. Baldacchino 

The debate on a link between Malta and Gozo has reached the point of discussing a tunnel or a bridge.

Some were quick to jump on the bandwagon, professing the economic benefits to Gozo of such link. They have every right to think so but so have those who believe that this will lead to an irreversible national negative impact on the social and ecological fabric of both islands.

A number of questions have not been asked, much less answered.

A Gozitan entrepreneur professed that such a link would be just another road, just like that from Marsascala to Valetta. Would it?

Preliminary guesstimates indicate the tunnel would meagerly cost about €150 million, not taking in consideration the externalities which society and the environment will have to pay.

Estimates of the bridge have not yet been divulged.

The maximum depth of the channel is 30 metres, so the minimum depth of the tunnel below sea level has to be at least 50 metres, depending on the strata in the way. A leading geologist, Peter Gatt, (Times of Malta, February 3, 2011) had emphasised that the channel’s geology is riddled with faults, abounding with clay in certain areas, which can lead to a catastrophic end. The populist mentality would reject this as scaremongering but a professional decision has to be based on such economic, social and ecological aspects and not just on populist politics.

Both exits of the tunnel, taking into consideration the gradient from the bottom, will bulldoze through the social and environmental fabric of both islands.

Chris Said, a Gozitan Nationalist  MP (Times of Malta, January 31, 2011) said that there is an immediate advantage to the environmental and social issues: generating and increasing more traffic through such facilities is an advantage.

Franco Mercieca, another Gozitan  MP from from the Labour side  (January 23, 2011) declared that linking an island with the mainland could mean huge savings for the government.

These political arguments lack any consideration of the externalities involved, be they ecological, social and even financial.

Is it worth to have such a huge capital outlay and such a negative impact on a national scale considering that only a small percentage of the population involved and such people will, nonetheless, still have to drive to the heart of both islands whichever way they are going?

A permanent link between the two islands would, without doubt, change in an irreversible way Gozo’s positive insular characteristics, be they social, ecological or economical. The big bulk of visitors to Gozo, be they local or foreign, go there because of its idyllic characteristics.

photos 1 - timesofmalta

photo:  viewingmalta.com; times of malta.

Time-wise, it would be better to go back home or to one’s hotel, even if this is in Marsaxlokk, than to spend the night in Gozo,  Alternattiva Demokratika’s Carmel Carmel Cacopardo had noted (Malta Today, June 16, 2013). How will this affect bed nights in Gozo? Would it, thus, become just another Paceville or Buġibba?

This does not mean there is not an urgent need for a better, more efficient, faster, more reliable and easier link, managed professionally, though not politically, to accommodate inhabitants as well as Maltese and foreign visitors, and also to ensure the protection of the social and ecological fabric of the islands.

An efficient, fast sea transport service, like the one between Malta and Sicily, can ferry one from Mġarr to Valletta or Sliema before one can say Jack Robinson, avoiding all the traffic jams on the way to get to the centre of the island. An efficient public transport to all the different parts of the island will be an added relief.

The natural resource, the sea, is there waiting and the capital outlay required would be much, much lower. The sea ferry option also offers the possibility of utilising one’s own transport means and avoids the need of having to drive from Ċirkewwa and back, consuming less fossil fuel and cutting emissions, besides helping the balance of overseas payments.

The much-needed link between the islands has to be studied and addressed holistically and not piecemeal.

The national characteristics, both social and ecological, will also be preserved. In addition, this link will be economically viable and friendly.

One may perhaps ask: but what of the financial cost to make the crossing? Considering the toll that is likely to be charged to use a tunnel or a bridge (which rate, I can imagine, would be based on commercial considerations), the stress, the fuel burnt to drive through bottlenecks all the way from Ċirkewwa to the centre of the island, not to mention the externalities and the time saved, a sea link is less expensive than the ideas being bandied about in the political arena.

Unless the politicians are dead set to destroy what is left of the social and environmental fabric of these islands in the name of progress and capital gain, it would be a win-win situation, a sustainable decision where the economic, social and environmental fabrics will definitely benefit.

Mercieca wrote: “As Gozitans our destiny is written on the wall. Unless we leave the island for good, we have to regularly travel to Malta all our life.” Does this not apply to all of the Maltese people living on this isolated rock in the middle of the Mediterranean?

We have to accept the pros and cons of living here, with all the benefits and difficulties this implies. If we do not like it, we can always pack up and leave like many others did to solve the insularity problem, in search of better jobs, wages and better governance.

Why do we have to think that insularity is the ‘certificate of lack of progress or regress in comparison to other communities’? It is a challenge which we accept to face and overcome and use to our advantage. Tourists, one of our main economic contributors, come here to see our way of life and appreciate it.

Why do we have to destroy it?

aebaldacchino@gmail.com